Tag Archives: nativeplants


By, Susan Sprout

American Dittany, Cunila origanoides, is a perennial plant in the Lamiaceae or Mint Family. “American” is attached to its common name because there are other plants native to Europe with the same name. The second part of its scientific name indicates that this plant resembles Oregano. Not too surprising, as quite a few of our cooking herbs are classified in the Mint Family as well. In fact, along with square stems and opposite leaves, aroma is one of the BIG family traits. Basil, Sweet Marjoram, Sage, Lemon Balm. Rosemary – to name just a few. There are lots – that are mostly native to other continents.

Check out the opposite and slightly serrated leaves of an upright plant.

I accidently became acquainted with American Dittany almost forty years ago as I tried cliff climbing near a creek. My boot slipped, and I grabbed the nearest rocky ledge. My reward was two fold: 1) I did not fall; 2) I was suddenly blessed with an amazing aroma from the plant growing nearest to my nose. Through all the following years of visiting that cliff and those plants, I have become aware of the decrease in their population. When I climb up to find them, I have to look and step really carefully in order to get photos. They now appear smaller than the reference books’ height of eight to sixteen inches. I missed their blooming time this year occurring from August to October. None of the plants I saw had their tiny, two-lipped purple flowers or the dried remains of them. Maybe they didn’t have the stored energy in their fibrous root system to reproduce.

This plant was hanging over the edge.

American Dittany or Stone-mint or Frost-mint is native to this continent from New York to Florida and west to Texas and Illinois. It tends to grow in dry forests and in the thin soils of rock outcrops, especially where vegetation is sparse. The serrated, lance-shaped leaves, dotted with oil glands (the scent), are opposite and stalkless, flowering from their axils. The wiry stem is brown and appears woody. When rolled between my fingers, I can feel the bumps that make it “squared”. In some resources, American Dittany is dubbed as a “sub-shrub” which is a dwarf, woody plant. I have not yet witnessed the reason this plant received a common name of Frost-mint. Evidently, when the watery sap pushes out at the bottom of a stem that has been cracked open by a hard freeze, it freezes into ribbon-like projections around the base looking like “frost flowers”! I would love to get a photo of that! I may have to let that task to someone younger and more agile. At my age, I probably shouldn’t be climbing around on cliffs in the slipperiness of winter.

Sometimes I find more than plants – a message for all mankind!


By, Susan Sprout

Well, I’ve done it again – sneaked out of the Plant Kingdom and into the Kingdom of the Fungi!

Sulphur polypores on a dead tree

And for a very good reason, too, just look at this fantastic group of Laetiporus sulphureus. Just call it Chicken of the Woods, Sulphur Shelf or Sulphur Polypore. It was a very colorful find on an extremely brownish and crunchy- dry hike to the top of Skyline Drive. And who wouldn’t want to hang out on the side of a dead tree overlooking this view, hmm? All of those overlapping, bright orange, fan-shaped caps range from smooth and suede-like to finely wrinkled with sulphur yellow margins and pores, not gills, underneath. Those pores, tiny little holes, dispense white spores, creating another generation of wood recyclers. The living, dead or decaying wood they grow on provides them with the nutrients to live and reproduce. The bright coloration will fade as these organisms age. The fresh flesh, thick and soft, will become tougher, not decaying like the mushrooms in your yard would.

The view!

Sulphur Polypores grow fruit bodies from spring to autumn. They range across the North American continent, east of the Rockies , providing good eats for beetles and deer. 

The many pores of a polypore


By, Susan Sprout

A volunteer plant grew near my woodshed – unexpected, but not unappreciated! It appeared over a month ago. I had to wait for it to grow bigger before introducing it to you and getting the photos that would capture its unique physique! Our native White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia) is a member of the Verbena Family, along with about 3,000 other species, mostly from warmer climates. Teak is one of them, prized for its beautiful and durable wood. I have always admired White Vervain and was happy to find it growing nearby. These annual or perennial plants usually choose moist fields, meadows, thickets or waste ground. Well, nothing much grows there except pennyroyal, and there is a downspout nearby. I guess that works in its favor.

Young White Vervain plant. My husband held a rug behind it as contrast in order to show its short flower spikes at its top.

White Vervain plants are compact at their start. When their small, tight, flower spikes appear, the magic begins! Their very slender flower stems begin to stretch out in all directions. The buds on them move further and further apart from each other until they look like little bugs sitting on thin branches. The really tiny white flowers open willy-nilly, here and there, as they mature. I pulled off one of the pollinated flowers and rubbed it gently between my fingers to tease out the four nutlets inside that will create the next generation of plants there. The flower stalks definitely stand out as an identifying characteristic of White Vervain. But, the rest of the plant needs to be checked out, too. It can grow from two to five feet tall, has a hairy, square stem, and stiff, opposite leaves that are doubly-serrated and look like the blades on a steak knife. If you want to look for this plant, it should be flowering from July to September in Pennsylvania. Its close relative, Blue Vervain, can be found inhabiting similar habitats, but has stiff pencil-like spikes of small, blue flowers that appear in a “more organized” fashion resembling a candelabra!

Large plant with expanded flower spikes reaching out in all directions.

Medicinally, Vervains are astringent, or drying, and have been used for millennia crushed up and applied externally to wounds, poison ivy sores and other skin complaints.


By, Susan Sprout

Purple-flowering Raspberry’s scientific name is Rubus odoratus. Its genus name is from Latin for “bramble”, defined as a prickly, scrambling shrub or vine of the Rose Family. But, its arching and sprawling branches have reddish-brown hairs that are sticky to touch instead of prickly to touch! This perennial plant is native to eastern North America. Its gorgeous rose-purple flowers that are about two inches wide made it a desired target of plant gathers from England in the 1770’s. It was taken there as an ornamental and has since naturalized as many plants from there have done here!

Purple-flowering Raspberry with five-pointed leaves

The leaves of this shrub resemble maple leaves with a heart-shaped base and three or five triangle lobes. The whole plant can reach to six feet tall. On a ledge or a shaded cliff where they seem to prefer growing, it is hard to get a true measure of their height. Their five-petaled flowers, pollinated by bees and insects, then create a large, flat berry made up of many little druplets. They bloom from May to August and set fruit from July to September depending on local conditions. I have found many adjectives describing the characteristics of these red berries: dry, tart, acid, bland, seedy, fuzzy to touch and on the tongue! Well, songbirds and game birds will eat them. Small mammals, too. The seeds are great for sowing in order to return native plants to an area and the roots work well at stabilizing banks. Many members of the Rubus genus, eighteen grow PA, have been used medicinally because their leaves are highly astringent and helped treat dysentery and diarrhea as well as skin ailments like sores and boils. 

Check out the hairy flower buds and the white, unripened fruit.


By, Susan Sprout

Have you ever noticed mosses still growing as you take walks during our winter season? They seem to be everywhere – between slabs of the sidewalk, on brick foundations, tree trunks or under them, cliff sides, rocks, on dirt and rooftops. They have always amazed me, so underfoot, and many times, so unappreciated! Having diverged from green algae about 500 million years ago, they evolved to become an extremely important part of all land ecosystems. They promote soil formation with the addition of dead tissues, grow where other plants having roots cannot, hold moisture to use and pass on to other organisms. Mosses are Bryophytes, members of the Phylum Bryophyta, along with the other ancient plants, Liverworts and Hornworts. All are nonflowering (using spores to reproduce), have stem-like rhizoids (rather than true roots), diffuse water and nutrients through cell walls (instead of having a system of veins). Many plant scientists consider them the “coral reefs of the forest” for the benefits they provide, even though small and having leaves only one cell thick. Mosses play important roles storing and filtering nutrients and water that forests need to survive and grow.

Moss is a perfect nursery for Hemlock seedlings that can dry out quickly and die.

Mosses contain chlorophyll to make their own food, using sunlight and the process of photosynthesis, in order to grow and reproduce. They “exhale” oxygen into the atmosphere as a by-product. They provide food, water, shelter and cover for many small invertebrates, like insects. Humans have not been shy about reaping and using mosses for many of their requirements: fuel, insulation for dwellings and clothing, bedding, diapering, bandaging, roofing, gardening. One thing we do not use moss for is food. The complex carbohydrates of most mosses would take more energy to digest than we would gain from eating them! However, research has discovered them to be anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral. Folks living in London, England, are using different kinds of mosses in structures they call artificial trees. Where they are positioned throughout the city, the moss containers absorb particulates, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides from the atmosphere while producing oxygen and keeping the surrounding air cooler. It is possible that mosses may provide yet to be discovered solutions to problems caused by climate fluctuations. They are much better equipped than other plants due to their worldwide distribution and their ability to soak up and hold moisture. 

A downside for the mosses in this arrangement is a slow growth rate, a quarter inch to two inches per year depending on the species. We will need to be judicious in our harvesting of mosses. When all of the moss is stripped from a log or rock, it can take twenty years for it to recover. Leaving one-third to one-half of the moss in patches can shorten the recovery time to ten years. Log moss is one of the ten most sought-after, non-timber products in Pennsylvania. Both the PA Game Commission and DCNR  prohibit removal of plants from their lands. 

Underfoot: Eastern Hemlock

By Susan Sprout

Growing up, I was lucky to have two Eastern hemlock trees in my yard, much taller that our two-story house. One had lower branches for easy climbing; the other, with high branches, provided places for swings. Kid heaven! I learned the meaning of words like “evergreen” and “conifer” from them.

Eastern hemlocks

As I travel the back roads near my home now, I try to imagine what an entire forest of trees resembling the current state champion hemlock in Cook Forest State Park would look like. It is 125 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter and has a spread of 70 feet. Penn’s Woods was covered by magnificent old-growth forests of pine, hemlock and different kinds of hardwoods at the time of its settlement similar to this state champion tree. The loss of these giants is well-documented in histories of the lumbering industry in this area. I still like to see them in my mind, dominating the cool, moist, north-facing slopes.

Unlike many trees, hemlocks grow well in shade with their long, slender, horizontal branches drooping to the ground. Half-inch long green needles with two white stripes underneath run up both sides of the bumpy twigs. Cones are light brown and oval with short stalks holding tight to the ends of branches. Although heavy cone producers when they reach fifteen years, the life of their seeds is low due to infertility, lack of even temperatures, and the moisture required for germination. Hemlocks are very slow growers and may only get an inch and a half in height in their first year with a root of one-half inch, making them very sensitive to the drying effects of higher temperatures. They are considered fully established at three to five feet tall. Seedlings seem to grow well in rotten logs, stumps, and mounds that provide a better moisture supply, many times creating pure stands of hemlocks the same size and age.

Hemlock cones

These native giants are under attack by a very tiny insect that attaches itself under the small leaves along their stems and causes a loss of nutrients to the whole tree. Hemlock Woolly Adelgid females lay white, woolly masses of sacks containing from fifty to three hundred eggs in two generations per year. These insects insert their long, sucking mouthparts directly into the food storage cells of the tree which responds by blocking off the tiny wounds to disrupt the outflow of sap. This, in turn, cuts off the flow of nutrients to the needles and twigs, leading eventually to their death.  Dieback to major limbs can occur within two years and generally progresses from the bottom of the tree upward. Originally introduced from Japan in the 1950’s, Hemlock Woolly Adelgid has spread to eighteen eastern states from Georgia to Maine and now covers nearly half the range of native hemlocks, appearing to spread about ten miles per year. 

We need our hemlocks because they make the damp, cool, shady environment required by many of the forest plants. They also keep it cool for small streams and their inhabitants. They provide wonderful shelter and nesting sites, nooks and crannies for dens, and food in the form of seeds and greens for browse. As young landscape plantings, they soften the rigid outlines of houses and sheds and cut be trimmed to create hedges. And, after all, they are our Pennsylvania State Tree!

Thank you to Evergreen Wealth Solutions for your support!

Underfoot: Jeepers, Virginia Creepers!

By Susan Sprout 

Virginia Creeper is a native, woody vine belonging to the VITACEAE, or Grape Family. Surprised?

You have probably seen many of them clinging to the sides of trees. They are versatile, growing in any kind of soil, partial shade to full sun, in fields, woods, or flood plains, from Maine to Florida. Virginia Creepers are good cover for erosion control as they…well…”creep” along on the ground. But, if there are trees around, up they go, growing to fifty feet in a year.

Virginia Creeper beginning its journey upward.

Their leaves are compound, made up of five, coarsely-toothed, six-inch leaflets that meet in the middle resembling fingers spread out on the palm of a hand. Small white flowers blooming in late spring may be difficult to see among the leaves. Fleshy, purple berries grow from the pollinated flowers and hang on red stems in branching clusters, remaining hidden until after their bright red to purple autumn leaves fall.

Fall red leaves of Virginia Creeper.

How do Virginia Creepers hold on to the trees as they climb? The answer to this question is a clue to their identification. They have many branched tendrils with adhesive disks or holdfasts produced on the plants’ stems opposite from the leaves. I carefully removed a piece of stem to investigate and found the tiny, three-sixteenth of an inch disks pushed down in the cracks and craters of tree bark in such a way, they were difficult to pull off. There were eight small disks on the tendrils, and with them came small hunks of bark. I read somewhere that allowing Virginia Creeper to grow up the side of a house can ruin painted surfaces, damage stucco, and the mortar between bricks. Those holdfasts are small, but mighty. Before checking out this feature for yourself, make sure the plant you are examining has five leaflets per leaf. Poison Ivy of “leaves of three, let them be” fame are climbers, too. Their holdfasts are more like hairy rootlets, however.

And just because Virginia Creeper is a member of the Grape Family, don’t think that you can eat the berries or leaves. You cannot – they are toxic, containing calcium oxalate crystals. Let them for twelve species of songbirds, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and skunks to eat!  

This blog post sponsored by Evergreen Wealth Solutions

Underfoot: Spicebush

By: Susan Sprout

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is THE native shrub I love to find while taking nature walks with kids, especially in the fall when its leaves are starting to turn yellow and its spicy berries (drupes) have ripened to a bright red. The squeezing and the sniffing of berries, leaves, and twigs make for a great multi-sensory experience.

Early fall berries before the leaves turn yellow.

The Laurel Family, of which Spicebush is a member, also gives us Sassafras, locally, as well as tropicals like Cinnamon and Sweet Bay. Hooray for this fragrant family! There is also a similar species of Spicebush (with finely hairy twigs) growing in the southeastern U.S., where it is endangered from habitat loss.

Spicebush leaves turn yellow before they fall.

Our Spicebush is three to seven feet tall and commonly found in moist woods or in the understory along stream banks. To identify it in the spring, look for clusters of tiny, one-eighth inch yellowish flowers, attached directly on the twigs, usually during March and April. They begin blooming before the two to five inch, egg-shaped leaves appear.  In the autumn, look for peeks of red shining through the leaves to find the berries. Sometimes this can be a difficult task because Spicebush is dioecious with male and female flowers on separate plants, requiring the pollen to move quite a distance to pollinate the female flowers. If it doesn’t get there, no berries. You may have to identify it by the lemony fragrance of a crushed leaf…not an unpleasant task!

Spicebush has many culinary and medicinal uses, like the rest of its family – tea from leaves and twigs, spice from dried and ground berries, extract from leaves and bark for inducing perspiration to break a fever or as liniment for rheumatism and bruises or a tonic for colds.

Underfoot: Nodding Ladies’ Tresses

By Susan Sprout

When I find Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, it makes me want to twist and shout!  In thanks for the plant being there, growing  –  AND –  in honor of a very special movement each little white flower on the stem has to make in order to bloom.

The labellum or lip which is attached above, actually twists down and around so that it is now below the other petals as it opens! This action provides a landing place for visiting insects and may also allow the lip to get more sunlight, showing patterns and nectar guides better.

Orchid flowers that do the twist are called “resupinate”. Yes, this plant is an orchid, native to Eastern North America. While it is not an uncommon plant, it is picky about where it lives and with whom. I found these in partial shade, along a dirt road where  the soil was wet and acidic.

Nodding Ladies’ Tresses will spread slowly by underground rhizomes to form colonies. They can reproduce by seed, too, but their seeds lack the store of starch and nutrients necessary for successful germination. Therefore, they require the help of mycorrhizal fungi to provide fixed carbon and mineral nutrients for the growth of seedlings…a specific species of fungus. Picky!

Look for them. They will keep blooming until the first frost. The single stem, about sixteen inches tall, holds a six-inch flower spike with a coiled spiral of white or ivory flowers, each one being held by a bulbous bract that is green and covered with minute hairs that spread about halfway down the stem. You may find two or three really thin leaves tightly clasping the lower stem. A basal rosette of leaves will be gone by the time the plant blooms. The tongue-shaped lower lips of the flowers are thin and lacy.

At least ten species in the genus Spiranthes can be found in Pennsylvania in various forms and locations.

When you find some, twist and shout!

Underfoot: White Snakeroot

By Susan Sprout

White Snakeroot is blooming now through October, depending on the weather. The heavy rain and hail last week may have taken a toll on their white, fuzzy-looking flower heads.

A close-up of the blossoms

Members of the Aster Family, they are unlike many of their relatives such as daisies with composite or compound flower heads, because they do not have any ray florets or petals surrounding the middle of the bloom. Instead, the whole flat-topped flower head is composed of white disk flowers that on closer inspection look like little tubes with five lobes at their tops. The male part of the flower is white and Y-shaped and sticks out beyond the tubes. That is what makes the flowers look fluffier. After pollination, the disk flowers will be replaced by tiny black seeds, about one-tenth of an inch long, with five ridges on their sides. A small tuft of white hair on each one helps with distribution by the wind. 

White Snakeroot is a native perennial plant with thin green to brown round stems. Their opposite leaves are oval-shaped and can be coarsely to sharply toothed. They flourish in deep shade to full sun and are common in woods, meadows, and along roads. The whole plant has a rather angular look to it with the flower heads jutting straight off above the leaf pairs!

Every part of this plant, living or dried, can be fatal to humans and domestic livestock if they have drunk the milk of animals that have eaten it. In the early 19th century, “milk sickness” claimed the lives of thousands of people unfamiliar with White Snakeroot and had used it as forage for their livestock. Abraham Lincoln’s mother is said to have died after using this toxic plant. Do look this up and read more about who discovered White Snakeroot was actually the cause of this horrible sickness!

White Snakeroot